a scandal in perspective
By Paul Schratz
We have lessons to learn from suffering, and in fact the lessons learned
as a result of pain are often some of the most important in a lifetime.
If there is meaning in pain, therefore, we can also pray that we will
benefit from important lessons learned from the sex abuse scandal currently
shaking the Catholic Church in the U.S.
The Church in Canada knows what itís like to be on the rocky road the
Americans are currently travelling. When we went through our own sexual
abuse crisis a decade ago, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
established an ad hoc Sexual Abuse Committee that produced two documents.
The first, Breach of Trust, Breach of Faith, was published in March 1992 and
included guidelines and outlines for group leaders in hope of stimulating
discussion about abuse.
The second report, appropriately entitled From Pain to Hope, called for a
break in the wall of silence that had allowed sexual abuse to persist for
years within the Church.
During this Easter season, as weíre celebrating Godís conquering of death
and evil, we pray that while the Church goes through this crisis, pain will
once again be transformed to hope.
At the same time, however, itís critical to keep in mind that although
the Church is in crisis, there is scarcely a time in history when the same
could not be said. From the days after Pentecost, when the disciples were
being jailed and martyred, through the scandals of today, the Church has
frequently been one step away from extinction. (G.K. Chesterton said the
Church has actually been buried and extinguished a number of times in
history. It just keeps coming back to life.)
In our eagerness to learn from our mistakes and our pain, itís important
that we learn the right lessons, and that will only happen if the situation
weíre studying is accurately understood.
Most of the people who are revealing the Churchís failures are not, letís
be honest, fans of the Church. They write and speak about the Church often,
but their attitude toward the Church as the Bride of Christ bears little
resemblance to ours.
They deserve our thanks for unearthing much that needed to be unearthed,
and for asking questions that needed asking, yet the lessons they hope we
will learn and the conclusions they want us to draw are not necessarily in
the best interests of the Church.
In the case of sexual abuse among the clergy, it can be helpful to
remember that the situation as presented is not the truth, the whole truth,
and nothing but the truth. Itís incumbent on us to be sure the facts are
right, the perspective is accurate, and the conclusions we are reaching are
the right ones.
When analyzing the U.S. situation, proper perspective demands that we
consider the following:
The levels of abuse in the U.S. compared with the rest of the world.
Comparable abuse statistics among clergy in non-Catholic denominations,
among married clergy, among other professions, and among the general
The small percentage of priests who have actually been accused of
How long ago the abuse took place, and how society at the time generally
regarded such incidents.
Whether the allegation is still an allegation, or has resulted in a
criminal charge or an actual conviction.
The credibility of the allegations.
There is neither the space here nor the need to explore all those
elements in detail. In the current context, any comprehensive examination
would appear to be a defensive response. Whatís more, theyíve been explored
in great detail among media that are genuinely trying to report the truth
about the scandal, as opposed to the pack journalism that is content to
merely dig up more allegations.
It is sad that among the mainstream press there has been next to no
interest in exploring these critical factors that place the scandal in some
context. They are questions that are crucial to getting at the truth, and to
ignore them as irrelevant is to reduce sexual abuse to mere lurid details of
When Peter Jennings anchored a recent ABC report entitled The Church in
Crisis, and had an entire hour to explore some of these issues, the
resulting program more closely resembled pornography than journalism, as
commentator Michael Markwick put it.
This is not a case of shooting the messenger. The media should be
credited for finding impropriety that had been swept under the carpet. They
must not be praised, however, for taking the dirt and throwing it into the
air, creating an illusion of a dust storm.
All of us, from the Pope down to the average Catholic in the pews, are
shattered by tales of priests who have fallen, of lay people whose lives
were destroyed. At the same time, we should keep in mind that there are many
people who relish and delight in the coverage. It confirms their worst
misperceptions of the Church. It also helps them to make their case for and
achieve their agenda of reconstructing the Church and reinterpreting its
mission on earth.
We ought to be very cautious at allowing people who have mis-defined the
problem to then outline solutions for us.
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